The Paradox of Frameworks

After receiving advice from technology and marketing professionals I admire (both in real life and through online articles) I've come to two observations:

  1. Business organizations love frameworks. They help scale ideas. 
  2. Business frameworks don't always work. Most of the time, actually, they don't.

The paradox of frameworks is that solutions require structure in order to move from one mind to another, but so many growth challenges (both in business and a career) are unique enough such that no one framework can be plugged in. Instead, solutions are customized to the problem, which is to say that there is no directly applicable framework. 

Part of this paradox is quickly summed up in Peter Thiel's book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future:

Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won't make a search engine...If you are copying these guys, you aren't learning from them. 

Of course, it's easier to copy a model than to make something new. Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange. 

I look at the many pieces of career advice I've received from parents, friends, and older colleagues. I also look at success stories across my organization at work. The consistent thread has always been "Hey, here's what I did when I faced that scenario," or "Hey, last time we broke through a large deal, this is how we did it." And this is because frameworks help tell the story of what going from 0 to 1 looked like. Frameworks are attractive because they help bring clarity and understanding. 

After reeling off of the success from Toy Story, Pixar's first movie, president Ed Catmull found himself asking how that movie became a success and how much of that success was his doing. 

He walks through his answer in an episode of Tim Ferriss' podcast:

What we did together is not something I can separate myself from. This is true of most enterprises. The desire to separate oneself is like asking for a clean answer to a question when there is no clean answer. And it is true with most of the things in our lives whether its business or personal is that the inner connection between them and how they're all mixed up together is inherently messy, confusing, and there aren't clear boundaries. And the desire for complete clarity actually leads one away from addressing the mess that's in the middle.

In another episode of Tim Ferriss' podcast, Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine and a million other things, brings the same argument for novelty to his definitions of professional success. 

The great temptation that people have is that they want to be someone else which is to say that they want to be in someone else's movie. They want to be the best rockstar. And there are so many of those already that you can only wind up imitating somebody in that slot. And I think to me success is making your own slot. You have a new slot that didn't exist before. That's what I chalk up as success - is making a new slot.

My slot would be Kevin Kelly. That's the whole point. The slot isn't going to be a career or an imitation of someone. That is success. You didn't imitate anybody. If you become an adjective that's a good sign. So I think success is making your own path. If they're calling you a successful entrepreneur, then to me that's not the best kind of success.

In other words, frameworks can be helpful for making sense of how an idea solved a problem. Role models can be helpful for showing how a person navigated the tendrils of a career. But to create something new or to solve something new or to be something new means that only a fraction of that framework is going to be helpful.

So, then, why do we use frameworks and why do I see so many of them?

Here's another popular quote from John Maynard Keynes: "It's better to be roughly correct than precisely wrong." 

Frameworks help make the incremental next step easier. We use frameworks because looking for precisely correct means we never get from 0 to .00001 (this is because precisely correct doesn't exist). Not using frameworks means staying at zero. And that's the absolute worst.